Sickle Cell Trait: Testing Before It's Too Late

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Sickle cell anemia is a fairly well-known disease, however, sickle cell trait is different. Many people don't even know they have it and can go through life without any symptoms.

But combined with rigorous exercise, it can be deadly.

A Silent Killer

It's a fact Bridgette Lloyd knows first-hand. Her son, Dale, was a strong, Christian athlete with a brilliant future, but without warning his life was taken away by the hidden killer.

"When you lose a child, you lose a part of yourself. You lose a part of your heart," she said. "Your spirit is gone and I think you have to realize there's only one way to make it out... the grace of God to give you strength each and every day to get up, to see another day, to try to not let this happen to another young person's life."

Dale Lloyd, a Rice University football player, collapsed during a strenuous practice. The cause of death -- complications from sickle cell trait.

Unlike sickle cell anemia where both hemoglobin genes are abnormal and produce mostly dangerous, sickle-shaped blood cells, people with the trait have only one abnormal hemoglobin gene and their blood cells are mostly a healthy, round-shape. But when people with the trait intensely exercise, their round blood cells can take on the sickle shape, become sticky and clog blood vessels. Resting corrects that, returning the cells to their round shape.

Changes to Save Lives

Complications from sickle cell trait is the number one cause of death for college football players. It's been linked with 10 on-field deaths in the last decade. None were during games, but instead happened during rigorous training.

Like most players carrying the trait, Dale didn't know he had it. His family sued Rice University and the NCAA. As a result, the NCAA recommended member schools test for the trait, but then went one step further and voted to require all Division 1 schools to test athletes for the trait. Currently only 64 percent of colleges screen for the trait and do so voluntarily.

"I think it's so important that we understand that this is about saving these young people's lives," Bridgette Lloyd said.

Beginning August 1, all athletes in NCAA Division 1 schools will be required to either:

  • Take a blood test to screen for sickle cell trait.
  • Prove they already had the screening.
  • Opt out of the screening by signing a waiver releasing their school of any liability.

An Example from the Pros

In the competitive world of sports, many wonder if having the sickle cell trait hurts an athlete's chance for success. NFL player Curtis Lofton has it and says it hasn't slowed him down.

As starting middle linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, he had 160 tackles last year. At age 23, Lofton is on his way to becoming one of the best players in the league. He says listening to his body is a matter of life or death.

"When my back starts cramping up or I start becoming short of breath, just things like that, that's when I feel like, 'Hey Curtis, you need to chill out. You need to pull back some,'" he explained.

"For me it's probably about 30 seconds," Lofton continued. "It's just 30 seconds to a minute because I have the trait."

Lofton added that his faith in Christ helps him deal with his condition.

"He's the one that wakes me up in the morning," he said. "I pray a lot and sometimes when I'm running these sprints I have to stop and say a little prayer to help me keep going or help me finish what I need to do."

Lofton first learned he had the trait after being tested while playing for the University of Oklahoma Sooners. Scott Anderson, his trainer at the school, became a driving force behind nationwide sickle cell trait testing after one of his players nearly died.

"There was a realization that the ignorance that we held was held by physicians, athletic trainers, coaches, athletes -- really everyone in sports," Anderson recalled.

Since the University of Oklahoma began testing for sickle cell trait in the 1990s, 20 of his players have tested positive. But only two of them already knew they had it.

Knowing the Facts

Hospitals in every state screen all newborns for sickle cell trait. Yet, parents often don't read the results of those screenings or forget them when their babies grow up.

One in 12 African Americans carry the trait, but people with Spanish, Greek, Italian, Asiatic Indian and Mediterranean ancestry are also affected.

"We've seen it in males. We've seen it in females. We've seen it in football. We've seen it in other sports," Anderson said. "It, to the best of our knowledge, has been predominantly male and predominantly a football issue, but it's not strictly so."

While some players like Dale Lloyd never survived sickle trait complications, their deaths raised awareness about the condition that will likely prevent others from suffering the same fate.

*Original broadcast April 27, 2010.

Related Link:

Sickle Cell Trait Information

Related Blog:

Healthy Living

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.